What C. Wright Mills Already Knew: Syriana

Turns out, pow­er is some­thing worth dis­cussing, even if you thought Who Gov­erns? explained that trou­ble­some bogey­man away. Get out your Gram­sci, Fanon, Reuther, Niebuhr, Fou­cault, Said and Ander­son, put on a pot of cof­fee and the­o­rize Black­wa­ter, Bech­tel, Hal­libur­ton and The Car­lyle Group. As an incip­i­ent, lack­sadaisi­cal polit­i­cal sci­en­tist, I’d say the film lacked an addi­tion­al lay­er of com­plex­i­ty and sub­tle­ty by miss­ing the role played by NGO’s and non­prof­it cor­po­ra­tions min­ing a lucra­tive third way. Why both­er with shad­owy front oper­a­tions when the mon­ey can be fun­neled back and forth between well-mean­ing third parties?

From a moviego­ing per­spec­tive, Syr­i­ana does things that con­fus­es Amer­i­cans (read: non-ide­o­log­i­cal thinkers) by vio­lat­ing cer­tain prin­ci­ples of fair­ness which auto­mat­i­cal­ly sub­verts the exoti­cist ram­page sto­ry­line. This is Melville and Con­rad ter­ri­to­ry, albeit less poet­ic, sus­pend­ed in a val­ue neu­tral vac­u­um. This is beyond good and evil; these are tac­ti­cal loss­es and col­lat­er­al dam­age, tit for tat. Final­ly a metaphor for the move­ments of port­fo­lio cap­i­tal, embod­ied in the sev­er­al per­sons ani­mat­ing the drama.

Unlike Moore, Gaghan and Clooney (chan­nel­ing some­thing he must have learned under David O. Rus­sell) con­spire to cre­ate a near­ly unim­peach­able polit­i­cal film, so restrained it can’t be con­sid­ered excit­ing or sus­pense­ful or any of the Oscar-wor­thy blurb clich­es that will doubt­less be imput­ed to it. Syr­i­ana refutes Soder­bergh’s ham­fist­ed lec­ture on the war on drugs and com­pli­cates mat­ters by pre­sent­ing a sto­ry in which alle­giances change, lessons are learned and time over­laps, rather than evolv­ing from one point through an arc, cre­at­ing a sto­ry rife with coin­ci­dence and stink­ing with serendip­i­ty. Unlike the rev­e­la­tions of Medi­um Cool, Syr­i­ana’s mes­sage breaks across faces with the same grim real­iza­tion under­gone by the exe­cu­tion­er in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, not out of enlight­en­ment, but painful necessity.

Let’s Play Get the Guests: The Incident

Who’s Afraid of Vir­ginia Woolf? The Inci­dent unrav­els like an Albee-an night­mare, as if his stuff weren’t night­mar­ish enough. From the moment the film begins, the char­ac­ters pour­ing in to their own Man­hat­tan Trans­fer, each with a tiny nar­ra­tive of their own, we get a grandiose pris­on­er’s dilem­ma (or col­lec­tive action prob­lem) in which we see the worst of human­i­ty in acts of high cow­ardice. This is the stuff of the real Calvin and Hobbes.

The Inci­dent pits ran­dom­ly select­ed indi­vid­u­als against two men­ac­ing hooli­gans. The hostages come from all walks of life and some­how the crim­i­nals suss some­thing about each indi­vid­ual that par­a­lyzes the oth­ers with fear. It’s a vul­gar Freudi­an night­mare at cross pur­pos­es with Dar­win — sex­u­al­i­ty and pow­er are in the fore and these wound­ed ani­mals can’t defend them­selves ade­quate­ly, leav­ing the cats to play with the mice before they kill them.

It’s a pow­er­ful film. Deeply nat­u­ral­is­tic, this is McTeague with­out the mon­ey; the crim­i­nals have fig­u­ra­tive­ly chained them­selves to the car, at once putting them in a posi­tion of strength and weak­ness. Spec­tac­u­lar­ly cru­el, The Inci­dent seems like an answer to Elia Kazan’s so-called do-good­er pol­i­tics, Peerce thumb­ing his nose at those who believe col­lec­tive action to be inher­ent­ly red, or inher­ent­ly any­thing. Equal­ly inter­est­ing is that this film could be remade, set in the eight­ies, before any notion of “qual­i­ty of life” crime and oth­er police vocab­u­lary had yet to be cre­at­ed and the leg­endary, pre-Giu­liani New York that was mythol­o­gized as the province of junkie war­lords and gang­bangers, open to the promise of a police state.

What’s The Matter With Kansas: The Ice Harvest

This per­verse Dick­en­sian tale has the mak­ings of a mod­ern day Christ­mas clas­sic: a moral­i­ty play gone awry in almost too many ways to count, with a Scrooge who real­izes that even if he’s gen­er­ous, the bank accoun­t’s still full. There’s Christ­mas past, present and future, all rolled into one icy rain­storm as a Benz whisks Cusack from tense to tense.

If it sounds like anoth­er maudlin Christ­mas movie to you and if you’ve had enough of The Christ­mas Sto­ry to last a life­time, con­sid­er this: Cusack plays a mob lawyer involved in a “per­fect crime,” part­nered with Bil­ly Bob Thorn­ton as the mus­cle guy with moti­va­tion. Set in Kansas, we’re made aware of the con­tra­dic­tions at play; you can almost hear Sen. Brown­back chid­ing his con­gre­ga­tion, ahem, con­stituen­cy against the evils por­trayed here­in. This is the oth­er Kansas — one that was left behind as rock ’n’ roll moved out of Kansas City for Detroit, New York and Los Ange­les. The polit­i­cal ambi­gu­i­ty still allows for a cri­tique of greed and hypocrisy, some­thing Daniel Kas­man notes in his review.

Ramis returns to a famil­iar theme: small town claus­tro­pho­bia. But unlike Ground­hog Day, the dan­ger in Wichi­ta Falls is as pal­pa­ble as it is inevitable. As Cusack skirts the cops and his would-be killer, we learn how des­per­ate every­one is to escape; think of a thou­sand toast­ers dropped into a thou­sand bath­tubs in the name of exis­ten­tial free­dom. But for Cusack and his com­pa­ny, there are no easy outs.

If The Par­don­er’s Tale were a Christ­mas com­e­dy or Ground­hog Day a noir soaked in rain and bour­bon, then The Ice Har­vest would be a brown paper bag wait­ing for you Christ­mas morn­ing beneath the tree, dec­o­rat­ed with blood red ribbon.

It’s a Wonderful Life — Woody Allen’s Early Years

There’s prob­a­bly no more over­looked fig­ure in my knowl­edge of film than Woody Allen. He’s always been on my radar; I saw Sleep­er as a pre-teen and knew imme­di­ate­ly that his was a sense of humor and a sen­si­bil­i­ty I could auto­mat­i­cal­ly appre­ci­ate. Annie Hall too. Maybe I thought that said too much about me, but this could be some Car­ly Simon psy­chob­a­b­ble about over­wraught, intel­lec­tu­al narcissicists.

So it was after see­ing Man­hat­tan that I com­plete­ly fell in love with Allen as a film­mak­er. I can think of few exam­ples where some­one can not only tell a beau­ti­ful sto­ry in such a self-con­tained, self-absorbed man­ner. And it’s edu­ca­tion­al! Allen keeps no secrets about his influ­ences and his films always point to cin­e­mat­ic his­to­ry. His appre­ci­a­tion for Bergman in Man­hat­tan is not only a metaphor but also a compliment.

In fact, it’s to Allen’s cred­it that he can so light­heart­ed­ly present audi­ences with film lec­tures while telling a sto­ry at the same time. It’s good because there has to be some way for movie­go­ers who aren’t neu­rot­ic, self-loathing Jew­ish New York­ers to iden­ti­fy with his char­ac­ters. Those car­i­ca­tures are what peo­ple find fun­ny — these rei­fied dis­tor­tions some­times look like car­toons not peo­ple and not mon­sters — mak­ing it eas­i­er to come to grips with the sto­ry itself, which might be painful in ways that hit too close to home.

This has led me to buy Woody Allen Col­lec­tion Vol. 1 and digest it imme­di­ate­ly. For 49 bucks it seemed too good to pass up.